BEAUTIFUL MIND documents John Forbes Nash, Jr.’s battle with
mental illness. The
Most impressive is that Nash lived an increasingly productive life as the years wore on. His crowning experience came in 1994 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.
Nash’s odyssey with schizophrenia demonstrates that it’s possible to gain greater control over a debilitating psychological problem than we might imagine. His example gives hope to anyone suffering from serious mental illness, that there may be even brilliant light at the end of that horribly dark tunnel.
His example is deeply encouraging to the rest of us as well. Most of us don’t face the sort of psychological challenges Nash did. We don’t have to question whether the person standing in front of us or the furnishings in the room around us are mental holograms. We may assume that the reality our eyes see and our ears hear is reality.
Yet the reality that our mind assumes to be true—or quite possible—can be another matter altogether.
We may suffer fears that bear little relation to the truth, yet are still effective in shutting us down and holding us back from taking steps with our life that would succeed. We may be tortured by second thoughts in a decision, even though we’ve thought it through carefully and have substantial reason to move forward. Or we may be too quick to think we’ll be better off caving in to anger and expressing it unkindly to someone. And the anger we feel may spring from assumptions that are terribly inaccurate.
The perceptions we fall into in such areas can limit us just as greatly as psychotic delusions did in Nash’s case. Our challenge is also similar to his in important respects. We have to come to grips with the ways our mind is capable of misleading us, then make our best effort at these points to separate fact from illusion. The fact that Nash was able to gain mastery over the demons of schizophrenia is tremendously reassuring, and gives us hope that we can successfully wage our own battles of the mind—which are typically less formidable than his.
What John Nash’s example shows us, more than anything else, is the value of gaining psychological self-awareness. For him, it made all the difference in finding the path to a productive and fulfilling life. Each of us will also benefit remarkably from gaining a clearer understanding of our own temperament, and of how we need to filter its impressions.
In his ground-breaking book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman stresses that we have a chronic need for such self-understanding. He notes that we humans are easily led astray by our feelings, which often distort our thinking. Our emotions can take over our rational process so totally that our view of reality is drastically skewed—a problem Goleman terms “emotional hijacking.”
The driver stewing with road rage, for instance, is musing, “To maintain any integrity, I have to teach that idiot who cut me off a lesson he’ll never forget. I’ll drive so close to the side of his car that he thinks I’m going to hit it.” In a calmer moment the offended driver would never imagine such action would be cathartic. Yet as his anger explodes, he quickly spins into crazed logic. He now sees sideswiping the other’s car as his personal mission. In this case his emotions have fully hijacked him.
In less extreme cases our emotions mislead us more subtly. Yet they can still be potently effective in swaying us to bad judgment. An important part of maturing, Goleman explains, is learning to manage our emotional process so that it works for us and not against us. We need a keen understanding of how we are wired, and why our feelings flow in certain ways under certain circumstances. Awareness of how we function psychologically removes the element of surprise, making it less likely our feelings will sabotage us.
We also need to make many adjustments for our particular psychological tendencies. Learning not to fan the flame of anger or nurture unhealthy fear is important. It’s essential, too, not to let ourselves get so overstressed that we’re susceptible to emotional hijacking.
Just as crucial, we need to learn to question perceptions influenced by runaway emotions, and refuse to let them be our final take on reality. We should take our emotional state strongly into account in all our decisions, and filter out assumptions induced too readily by anger, fear, or distraught feelings.
At the same time, we greatly need the constructive energy our emotions provide. A major part of our task is learning how to best open ourselves to the influence of positive feelings, such as love, empathy, hope, and natural motivation for certain work.
These are some of the steps necessary to develop emotional intelligence. We need it every bit as much as academic knowledge, Goleman insists. Unfortunately, our educational system gives scant attention to helping us grow smarter psychologically. It turns out many people who are brilliant in their fields of knowledge, but can’t handle their feelings well.
Goleman is strongly on target. If we are to successfully move through life—to live productively, to accomplish our dreams, to make meaningful contributions to others’ lives—we need emotional intelligence as much as any other skill or personal quality. We need to become good psychological thinkers, and able to manage our own psyche well. Knowing what to expect from our emotions, how to compensate for them, and how to draw maximum strength from them, enhances our potential considerably in every area of life.
Christian and Emotional Intelligence
The goal of growing wiser emotionally is an important one for us as Christians, and would seem to fit naturally with our need to become more Christlike. Unfortunately, many Christians fall into a perspective about emotional life that hinders them. They assume that Christ expects them to give him control of their temperament, and that this is the end of the matter. This assumption is noble and well-intentioned. But what does it mean? That we should let Christ manage our emotions as though we were robots in his hands?
This is the sort of outcome we too often have in mind when we speak about having a “Christ-controlled temperament.” We assume he will simply take over the whole emotional process for us, and relieve us of all struggle. Our role is to disregard negative emotions we experience and “give them up to him.” We shouldn’t give much attention to our desires and longings, either, which are likely to lead us down the primrose path; we should yield them to him, and assume that his will is probably different from what we naturally want.
God, though, is looking for a quite different response of obedience from us. His concern is that we learn to take responsibility, on all levels, for the life he has entrusted to us. This means becoming a good manager of our own emotional process. We should draw on his help and insight constantly as we do so; in that sense, we are giving him control. But if we expect him to do the work for us, we’ve missed the point. He wants us to take the same responsibility for growing emotionally that we do for growing intellectually.
We need, on the one hand, to develop a deep appreciation for the positive role our emotions play. Scripture stresses that they are a gift of God, providing the life-energy he uses to propel us in directions that reflect his will. When Paul declares that God “works” in us (Phil 2:13), the term he uses literally means “energizing.” Paul is saying that God is stimulating us to take certain steps with our life. As we come to grips with what we are most motivated to do, we gain a treasured insight into how God has created us as individuals, and into what he wants us to do. Developing this self-understanding is the most thrilling part of emotional growth.
Our feelings may just as readily have a detrimental effect, and Scripture gives considerable attention to this side of it as well. Our emotions are an extraordinary force, like the wind, capable of driving us in both productive and unfortunate directions. Just as a sailor must respond to the wind by adjusting the sail properly, we need to interact with our emotions in a way that allows their energy to be life-giving and not destructive. The most challenging part of emotional growth is learning to deal with our emotions’ contrary side.
The most difficult part of that challenge, moreover, is learning to think clearly at those times when our emotions have the potential to cloud our judgment. We need a healthy skepticism for the conclusions we reach then, and the astuteness to see reality for what it actually is. Knowing our vulnerable points, and being ready to make reality checks at such times, is vital.
Let’s look more closely at what some of these instances typically are. These are some common occasions when we need to regularly question our conclusions, and refuse to let our emotions throw us off course:
1. Managing anger. No emotion colors our perception and clouds our judgment more quickly than anger. Our musings in the midst of it—about the person who has perturbed us, and about what action we suppose would be cathartic to take—are often gross distortions of the truth.
The most tragic assumption we fall into is that we will injure ourselves if we don’t express the anger we feel. Ventilationist theories of the past century have stressed that we store anger. If not expressed, it builds up inside us and can cause us serious emotional or physical harm. In reality, though, we don’t store anger any more than we store positive emotions. And expressing it just as often nurtures it as relieves it. Satisfaction comes not from expressing anger, but from resolving the problem that caused it.
We are rarely capable of addressing a problem constructively when our anger is at its height. It’s a good rule of thumb to remember that our view of reality in a state of high anger is bound to be flawed. A valuable benchmark of our readiness to tackle a matter of contention is that we’re finding ourself able to see things from the other person’s viewpoint.
Reaching that point of empathy usually requires holding our tongue for the moment, taking some deep breaths, giving it some time, and perhaps a game of racquetball. We haven’t grown fully wise emotionally until we instinctively question our assumptions of reality when we’re angry, along with our need to immediately confront the other person. One of the surest signs of strong character is that we naturally put the brakes on the inclination to express anger unkindly. Gaining the ability to manage our anger this effectively should be a chief goal of emotional growth.
2. Guarding our heart. In this regard, we face an interesting dichotomy as Christians. Our desires provide us critical insight into how God has fashioned us, and thus into his will for our life. At the same time, our emotions lack discernment in themselves, and can fixate on objects of attraction that are anything but right for us. This leaves us with the ongoing challenge of distinguishing healthy desires from unhealthy ones.
Over time, our subconscious usually handles this task well, especially when we are in a growing relationship with Christ. Desires that have been with us for a long period and have stood the test of time are often excellent indications of God’s guidance. Less seasoned desires have a greater potential to mislead us, and to prove Jeremiah’s claim that the heart can be “deceitful above all things” (Jer 17:9).
An important part of growing wise emotionally is developing good judgment about our desires. We need clear perspective for determining which ones are constructive and which are not. Most important, we need to exercise this judgment often—choosing to nurture certain desires and not others. The married man who finds himself attracted to another woman, for instance, needs to avoid stoking that infatuation, as well as doing everything possible to rekindle his affection for his spouse.
The good news is that we do have considerable control over the long-term direction of our affections. With the right time and attention, our desires can become the life-giving motivational force God intends them to be.
3. Setbacks and major losses. Emotional pain, like physical pain, has the sense of forever to it. The most common reason teenagers commit suicide is heartbreak stemming from romantic rejection, and the belief they will never get over it and find it possible to love again.
Personal loss poses us two challenges. We have to believe that in time we’ll have the opportunity to make a fresh start—that failure once doesn’t mean failure forever. We also must believe we’ll be emotionally able to let go of our hurt feelings and find a new outlet for our affection.
It’s the latter conviction that’s often the hardest to realize when we’re reeling from a major loss. Yet in truth, God has made us remarkably resilient as humans. We can take the love we’ve felt for one person and redirect it toward another. We can take the passion we’ve devoted to one dream and reinvest it in another. Part of growing wise emotionally is learning that such refocusing of affection is possible, and bringing that fact to mind often when we’re mourning an unhappy ending.
We usually need to allow ourselves some reasonable time to grieve a significant loss. Yet grief can become chronic. We need to make it a practice to question the perpetual sense of heartbreak we feel, and to remind ourselves constantly that it will pass—if we allow it to. And we need to open ourselves as fully as possible to the new beginnings Christ makes possible for us.
4. Paranoid assumptions. Most of us invest untold energy into worrying about what others think about us. When we look back on such ruminations, we so often find that they’ve hit wide of the mark of reality. It can be embarrassing to admit just how misplaced these concerns usually have been.
Most of us don’t suffer from psychotic paranoia. Yet we do experience it often at a less extreme, but still stifling level. Our worries about what others think are inaccurate so much of the time, that we should assume by default they are wrong unless proven otherwise (especially since others are usually much less concerned about us than their own problems). We ought to make it a habit, whenever such suspicions set in, to tell ourselves there’s high probability we’re not thinking clearly.
We should see questioning our paranoid musings as part of our work in growing wise emotionally. This practice can relieve our anxieties significantly, and will likely improve our relationships with others as well.
5. Mood swings in decision making. Those of us with analytical temperaments usually find decision making difficult. A woman recently described to me her dilemma in deciding whether to marry her boyfriend: “When I’m up, I see all the reasons I should do it; when I’m down, I see all the reasons I shouldn’t.” Her emotional state affects her outlook so strongly that on one occasion she sees marrying this man as the opportunity of a lifetime, on another as the mistake of her life.
Those of us who suffer mood swings like this need to override the tendency, if we’re to make firm commitments and realize God’s best for our life. We should base our choices more on our pattern of feelings over time than on our emotions of the moment, and give more weight to the way we think when we’re encouraged than when distressed or fatigued. Once we’ve diligently worked through a decision, we should stick with it—unless we encounter clear new information that gives us a strong reason not to proceed. Barring such new insight, we should regard doubts that surface when we’re down as normal ruminations of our temperament, and not a valid take on reality.
“Don’t doubt in the darkness what God has shown you in the light,” as it’s said. The adage is sometimes applied superficially to the Christian life. Yet it’s sage wisdom when we’ve made a decision carefully and prayerfully, but then are dogged with second thoughts.
6. The need to rescue. There’s another point where our emotions can mislead us, and, if we’re not wary, beguile us considerably. Christ works within us who follow him to deepen our compassion for others. He builds into us a longing for our life to accomplish something of value to people, and calls us to do nothing less than give our life wholeheartedly to meeting others’ needs.
Yet he calls us to focus in what we do for others as well, and to base our choices on the unique gifts, motivational pattern, and energy level he has given us. Each of us can only do so much, and none of us can be all things to all people (Paul’s claim that he had become so, in 1 Corinthians 9:22, referred to his adopting customs of people he evangelized, not to his meeting every need he confronted).
Each of us faces many opportunities to help others, or to assist with worthy causes, where responding would stretch us beyond reasonable limits, and deplete the energy we need for commitments we’ve already made. Emergencies do occur, when we must draw on reserve energy and do our best to respond. But we cannot function effectively at the crisis level for long periods. Normally, God expects us to make careful choices about what we do to serve others, based on the capabilities he has given us. He wants us to live energetically, yet within our physical and psychological limits—to be good stewards of our life.
We are likely at times to feel the inclination to help—even a strong instinct to rescue—when it’s not wise to respond. We should never assume that the impulse to help, in itself, is God’s call to get involved, until we’ve carefully weighed all the relevant factors. We need, in short, to be big-hearted yet cautious in responding to others’ needs, and the many opportunities to serve that come our way. Decisions to commit ourselves should be made as much with our mind as with our heart.
Emotional Intelligence a Habit
These six areas demonstrate the extraordinary importance of understanding both our temperament and our feelings at the moment, and taking these emotional factors strongly into account in our actions and decisions. Always, always, when we’re inclined to act impulsively for any reason, we should stop and identify exactly why, and consider whether we’re being driven to do something unwise that will come back to haunt us. Are my emotions hijacking me? Making a habit of asking the right questions makes all the difference—
(When angry:) Is anger clouding my judgment, and do I need to allow myself a chance to cool down before taking action? Am I on the verge of saying or doing something I’ll soon regret and have to apologize for?
(When enticed:) Is craving overruling my better judgment at this moment, and masquerading as healthy desire? Am I about to do something that will end up damaging my health, reducing my effectiveness for Christ or hurting others?
(When reeling from a setback or loss:) Is there possibly a silver lining in what I’ve gone through? Is there something to learn that will help me be more successful in the future? Can I grow stronger through dealing with this reversal? Will God perhaps compensate by providing for me in another way? Can I remember a past time when a difficult loss paved the way for a great blessing? If so then, why not now?
(When obsessing about what someone thinks:) Do I have any clear evidence this person is thinking ill of me? Have such worries usually been wrong in the past? If so, isn’t it likely they’re off base now? Wouldn’t I do better to expect the best from this individual? Might that expectation even prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy?
(When feeling the need to rescue:) Does my urge to help this person or join this cause or take on this responsibility spring from my need to be a hero? Will saying yes in effect be saying no to other commitments I’ve already made, by robbing me of the time and energy to fulfill them? And have I honestly weighed how responding to this opportunity fits with my God-given gifts and the priorities to which Christ has called me? Should I rather pray for the grace to lovingly say no?
We not only should question our feelings when we’re tempted to act from impulse, but also when we’re hesitant to take a step that seems to make sense for us. Am I holding back due to fears that are probably exaggerated and wide of the truth? Is my vacillation simply inevitable, given my analytical temperament? Is it time to stop playing it so safe and to take a reasonable risk? Will I do better just to make my best choice, get on with it, and “let the chips fall”?
We should make a conscious practice of raising questions like these whenever our emotions are spinning out of control, and do so to the point that this self-prodding becomes a habit. As it grows routine for us, we’ve taken a big step toward managing our feelings well.
It also helps us greatly to spend some devoted time daily reflecting on our emotional life—on how it’s working for and against us, and on how we can better manage it. This doesn’t have to be an extended period—ten or fifteen minutes of careful reflection can benefit us greatly, especially if done early in the day. And of course it can be included in our daily devotional time, if we have such a commitment (and if not, this is a great way to get started!). But the important things to consider are—
The past day’s successes and failures. How well did you manage your feelings during the past day? Did you worry about something unnecessarily too much? Did you lose your temper or cave in to some other emotional hijacking? Did you say yes to someone for the wrong reasons, when you should have said no? Why did these incidents occur? And what can you learn from them to be wiser emotionally in the future?
On the positive side, did you manage a challenging emotional situation well? Commend yourself then, and enjoy the memory! And consider what you can learn from the incident to help you successfully handle similar situations in the future.
Challenges this current day may pose. Do you anticipate any situations today that may be difficult for you emotionally? Pray for Christ’s strength and guidance to face them well. Consider how a given situation may unnerve you, then prepare yourself mentally to face it. Do you expect a particular meeting scheduled at work to stir your anger, for instance? Be ready to count to ten and hold your peace, if needed; or to speak your mind calmly and considerately, if appropriate.
Pray for Christ’s help also with unexpected challenges that will surely arise during the day. Remind yourself of the need to question impulsive feelings, and to be careful your decisions are guided as much by your mind as by your heart. Preparing in this way for the day’s emotional challenges can greatly help you to manage them successfully.
Other difficult situations you’re facing. If you’re dealing with a loss or defeat, reflect on any benefits that may come from it, and remind yourself of the resilience God gives you to rebound. If you need to take a step soon that frightens you, reflect on the strength Christ will give you to do it, plus any other reasons for taking courage. Pray for God’s help as you need it in these situations.
Your desires and God’s will. Plan at least once a week—on a weekend morning, perhaps—to extend this daily time, in order to focus on your emotions’ positive role and the guidance they may be giving you about God’s will. Think about whether you have a strong and long-standing desire to do something new with your life. And if so, does it match up well with your gifts and talents? Would it clearly help others? Such a longing may be the most important prompting God gives you to take a new direction. Here, it’s not the stray inspiration you feel on a given day, but the one that has persisted and stood the test of time. Pray for Christ’s wisdom in weighing its implications, and for the courage to move forward with any step of faith that’s recommended.
If you’re suffering from an emotional struggle or disorder that is getting the best of you, in spite of your most earnest efforts to manage it, seek the best professional help you can find for it. Prolonged depression, bipolar tendencies, PTSD symptoms, a debilitating phobia, unremitting anxiety or panic attacks, serious difficulty managing anger, or addictive behavior, each indicates a chronic condition that recommends professional assistance. There’s no more shame in seeking a professional’s help for a mental health issue than in seeking a doctor’s assistance for a physical problem. Indeed, these afflictions usually have their physical side, and healing comes from a combination of medical help and counseling. If a serious emotional disorder is ruining your life, seek the level of help you need for conquering it. The right counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist can do you a world of good. Support groups also abound for each of these disorders, and can provide unspeakable benefits.
Normative Experience for Most of Us
The more normal emotional struggles we all experience, day-in and day-out, respond well to the cognitive steps I’m suggesting, and usually don’t require professional assistance—apart perhaps from an occasional time of personal crisis. The goal of living wiser emotionally is highly achievable, if we commit ourselves to the daily and constant practice of being self-aware. As our emotional intelligence grows, we are by default happier, more productive, and considerably more effective for Christ. There are at least five reasons we’re more successful in everything we do:
1. As we grow to understand our feelings better, our instincts improve; we more naturally recognize what things we’re most deeply motivated to do with our life, and through this understanding gain a vital window into God’s will.
2. By projection, we more naturally perceive others’ feelings accurately and resonate with them—the quality known as empathy, which is at the heart of genuine compassion and being able to love others effectively for Christ
3. Managing our feelings better makes us more likeable and approachable; our social skills naturally improve, leading to a wide range of benefits for the goals we take on.
4. We’re much less distracted by negative feelings and much more buoyed by positive ones; in short, we have much more positive energy for the work we do, and for extending Christ’s love to others.
5. We’re less susceptible to a rescue mentality, and more likely to assume responsibility for the right reasons.
There are, in short, abundant reasons to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the goal of growing wiser emotionally. Becoming more self-aware is both a highly achievable goal and highly rewarding. I urge you to make growing wiser emotionally a lifestyle. These steps will help you get started, and will allow you to reinvent your life in some very positive ways!
Wait, There’s More . . .
Emotional intelligence not only involves understanding how our emotions affect us, and striving to manage their influences as constructively as possible. It also involves coming to understand certain underlying assumptions we have about life, and our potential in different areas, which profoundly affect how we feel and what we choose to do—then revising these beliefs as needed. I’m talking here about default assumptions we seldom question, but which can be sadly misguided. When they are, they can diminish our joy in living, and greatly restrict the choices we make.
We come here to a fascinating and hugely important area, which will be our focus in the next two chapters.
Excerpt taken from Emotional Intelligence for the Christian, by M. Blaine Smith. Copyright 2012 by M. Blaine Smith. Used on this web site with permission from SilverCrest Books, P.O. Box 448, Damascus, MD 20872.
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